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Crumbs from the Table

August 18, 2014

“Crumbs from the Table” Matthew 15:10-28 © 8.17.14 Ordinary 20A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of the requirements I had to meet for receiving a Doctor of Ministry degree was to engage in a course of study and practice called “Clinical Pastoral Education” or “CPE” for short. In addition to work in my congregation in Montevallo, AL, I became for six months a volunteer chaplain at Baptist Medical Center in Birmingham. Because my peers and I worked in a hospital, the course included basic instruction on a number of medical topics. Among these was infection control.

I remember being taught in a seminar how to wash my hands in a hospital. Specifics are fuzzy now. All I recall is a rather complex ritual involving when and how to dispense towels, turn on faucets, and so on, meant to reduce the hazards of germs and infection that could be passed from someone—me, for instance—to a patient. Or from the patient to me. When I washed my hands the proper way, I showed I cared. And I was maybe helping to save a life. The ritual was not meaningless. It was about survival.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day also had an elaborate ritual for washing hands. And for preparing and eating food, entering a home, and many other aspects of daily life. These rituals were about survival as well. The survival of a way of life. The continuity of a community of faith.

Such things were important to the Pharisees, who devoted their lives to seeing that the Jewish law was scrupulously observed and to being examples of such devotion. Contrary to the usual portrait, they were not mean-spirited, unimaginative traditionalists who insisted on unimportant rituals just to trip people up and make themselves look superior.

Jesus is admittedly hard on the Pharisees. But he’s so harsh with them sometimes because his viewpoints are actually rather close to theirs. He sees the great potential in what they’re trying to do. They had the right idea. The Pharisees were not rich, powerful aristocrats like the Sadducees; they were ordinary businessmen and shop owners and laborers who tried to do God’s will in the midst of life. They were willing to give their time and energy and attention to study and meditation and action to reach their goal.

So what did they want that was worth so much? Nothing less than to see the Kingdom of God come among them and all humanity. The way they proposed to do that was to make sure that the law of God was kept perfectly for just one day. So gracious was God, they believed, that merely that relatively modest effort would usher in his rule on Earth.

 

When Jesus criticizes the rituals of the Pharisees, he’s not saying such practices are stupid or useless. Nor would the community that produced the Gospel of Matthew around the end of the first century maintain that people could simply do as they wished. Tradition is valuable; it’s a means of maintaining the holiness of a people in the midst of a hostile and assimilating culture like the Roman empire. As such, it’s to be commended.

But our Lord wanted to remind his contemporaries and anyone who will hear that God ultimately has something else in mind. The purpose of God does lead us to promote holiness and purity. But that’s not God’s primary intention for us. What our Creator is interested in is the promotion of human community, our being part of a great family of men and women, girls and boys the world over who live with peace, compassion, and justice.

Look at the acts and words that Jesus insists are true defiling influences. Every one of them has to do with human relationships. From the taking of life in murder to the damaging of reputation by lying; from the breaking of bonds by unfaithfulness to the thwarting of community by insults—all this and more work against God’s good hope for human harmony.

So it is indeed surprising and not a little disconcerting to hear Jesus turn right around and insult a woman because of her ethnic background and religion. But even before our Lord speaks, we are stunned or at least puzzled by the author’s use of an ancient term of hatred to describe the unnamed woman.

She is a “Canaanite.” The parallel text in Mark says “Syro-Phoenician.” That’s a more modern, more correct, more descriptive term both linguistically and geographically. But Matthew deliberately dredges up a name 1000 years old. People in the Middle East of Jesus’ day had longer memories than we Southerners do today. They could hold grudges a long time. Matthew’s use of the word “Canaanite” would bring back old feelings of resentment and war and conflict. Readers of the day would recall that it was their attraction to the exciting and apparently effective Canaanite fertility cult that ultimately led the Israelites to destruction and captivity and exile. The infamous queen Jezebel, who influenced King Ahab for evil, was from Sidon, a Phoenician, or as Matthew would say, a Canaanite city. The term is a racial and cultural slur, worse even than some of the worst we use today to refer to people whom we suspect, scorn or hate and blame for all the troubles of our nation.

So already we know that the one calling to Jesus is an OUTSIDER, all caps. She has no claim on him according to the conventional religious thinking and prejudice of the day. And not only is she a Canaanite. She is a woman, and women were not supposed to talk in public to men to whom they were not related. She ignores all the rules; she’s pushy; she’s loud. No wonder the disciples want her gone.

Our Lord first pays no attention to her pleas, which are couched in amazing language that sounds to me like the ancient psalms. She calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David.” Those are the same terms later Christians would use. What’s going on here?

Jesus won’t give in. Don’t forget that Jesus is truly and fully human, a Jewish man, and thinks like the Jewish men of his day; he respects and follows the customs of his people. Plus he has a specific mission to fulfill, which doesn’t include ministry to someone who is not an Israelite. There has to be a focus, a strategic use of resources. Only one Jesus, and he can’t be there for everybody, can’t do everything, no matter how worthwhile.

But if Jesus won’t give in, neither does the woman give up. She’s rather like the psalmists in another way. They kept storming the gates of heaven in prayer, demanding that God open up, knocking on God’s door at 3 AM until he answered. And, as we find later in the conversation, she will endure any insult, accept any status assigned, take the leftovers of grace, if it means her daughter gets healed.

There are all kinds of ideas about what happens next. Some say Jesus was being playful, had a gleam in his eye, wanted to test the woman’s resolve. Others claim he was a woman-hating patriarchal bigot who needed to be taught a lesson in caring by a single mother. Still others suggest Jesus was reflecting the disciples’ own views back to them, so the woman was actually overhearing their conversation.

It’s a hard problem to sort out. But whatever is going on, the fundamental rhetoric and character of racism, prejudice, and sexism are exposed. How they operate is clearly revealed in the sentence “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What a loaded statement! The Canaanite is reduced to the level of an animal, in this case a dog, which was considered a filthy critter in the Middle East. Yes, the text in Greek does say “lapdog” or “puppy,“ but I’ve had three lapdog dachshunds, and I wouldn’t want to be put in the same category with them. Even though Susan and I treated Shea and Penny like daughters and do the same for Chloe, dogs are not people, no matter how smart, loving or helpful the animals may be.

Racism, sexism, and the assorted phobias and prejudices we are familiar with reduce others to the non-status of non-person. They become commodities, property, numbers, statistics, faceless enemies, stereotypes of a hated group. And thus we can do things to them we might never do to a fellow human. We can think about them in cruel and mean ways we would never imagined ourselves capable of. And we can tell ourselves that if we are to survive, if our way of life is to continue, if we are to get our share of the pie, then “they” have to go.

In the middle of the last century, Hitler did such a thing on a national scale with the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and anyone else deemed undesirable and a problem. We wonder how tyrants like Hitler or others could get away with genocide. How could Hitler have gained the active or passive support of virtually the entire society? What happens to make respectable people go so completely against everything that’s right?

At the beginning of the 1990s, the author Peter Haas suggested an answer. In his book Morality After Auschwitz, Haas argued that “‘Europeans committed what we judge to be heinous crimes under Nazi rule not because they were deficient in moral sensibility, and not because they were quintessentially evil, but because they were in fact ethically sensitive.’” Under the influence of the Nazi ethic, “‘vast numbers of people simply came to understand evil in different terms and, in perfectly predictable comprehensible fashion, acted upon their understanding’” (“Ethics and Morality after Auschwitz,” The Spire, Summer 1990). Says another scholar: “‘The Nazi ethic rendered acts of violence, brutality, and even genocide as good.’” The German people, in general, were convinced that Jews, gypsies, gays, and whoever else were evil, so they became, in the title of another book “Hitler’s willing executioners.”

I can’t help but wonder if, given a convincing rationale, any of us might define others not as people, but as objects. Donald Miller, in his classic book Blue Like Jazz, recalls a conversation with his friend Tony. This was around 2000, and they were talking about the genocidal tribal civil war in the Congo. Terrible atrocities were being committed, countless numbers killed. Tony asked the author if he thought he was capable of such acts. They ultimately decided that they both were; neither was at root any further evolved or civilized than the murderous men in the Congo.

Miller was really making a point about all of us. We are in fact capable of the most despicable acts. Especially if we believe we are protecting Our Way of Life or America or our families or our livelihoods or our reputations. Or doing the will of God.

People who believe they are following the dictates of God can do the most horrible things to others. They can lie, they can cheat, they can slur, they can hurt and harass. They can and they will even kill. We have seen it throughout history and today in our nation and around the world. But it isn’t just others who turn people into things in the name of God and hurt them. We—you and I—could do that. And if you think you can’t, if I think I can’t, well, we’re just fooling ourselves. We think we’re better than that, when the truth is, we’re just miserable sinners only kept from displaying our worst natures by the powerful restraining grace of God.

So let us all admit what and who we are. None of us deserves any more than the crumbs from God’s table, if that. We are all of us beggars longing for hope and for bread. And it is only by the grace of a redeeming, amazing God in Jesus Christ that we can do any good at all, have anything at all.

And when we can realize that, there can be no more Canaanite and Israelite, no more Jew and Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, black and white and Asian and Hispanic, college student and octogenarian, progressive and liberal, white trash in a shack and rich folks in the big house on the hill. The playing field is leveled; the world is flattened. As the hymn writer put it: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us, makes us one, and strangers now are friends.” And we can even begin to see that God works among those we suspect or scorn, that maybe God’s truth can come from the mouth and be in the heart of someone quite different from ourselves. Jesus credited a Canaanite—a hated, despised, dog, woman, Canaanite—with great faith and granted the healing of her daughter. If that is so, what does it mean to follow Jesus today when we consider our neighbors down the street or across the globe and whether God is at work in their lives?

Still today there are those who must make do with crumbs from the table, the leftovers of food and hope and help. The day that the Pharisees and Jesus dreamed of, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, and all will have their daily bread, is not yet and indeed it seems farther away with every news report. But in God’s time it will come, and we will gather to break bread, seated together, where loaves abound.

Let it be soon, Lord. Let it be.

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